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(The following is Michael Pennington’s contribution to the programme for the Sir John Gielgud Centenary Gala.)

The Sir John Gielgud Centenary Gala

I was taken by a thoughtful friend for a first-ever meeting with John Gielgud in 1978; it turned into an eight-hour lunch for three, and he barely drew breath. Once when he did, it was to ask what I had been doing at the RSC lately; I was glad, as I thought I was having a natty season and he would be impressed. One by one, with magnificent moues of distaste, he dismissed each of my parts as unplayable, naming the most notable failures he’d seen in each – including his own. It’s typical of him that this seemed to me to be an entirely friendly and companionable thing to do; his acute pride always included a presumption of likely failure for all of us.

What luck to have known him for twenty years thereafter, to have worked with him on and off, and been periodically reminded of this gift of his, both paternal and fraternal, his correct sense of his own consequence balanced by an unforced ability to welcome you. It wasn’t so alarming to do one of his old parts in front of him because you knew his interest was genuine; it wasn’t hurtful when he resigned as a patron of my English Shakespeare Company after a year, because we both knew how much he disapproved of our modern dress and had only wanted to give us a good start. Later on we filmed in Tuscany, John Mortimer’s ‘Summer’s Lease’, and he had to break off to go back to England for surgery. He shouldn’t have come back as soon as he did, in days rather than weeks; but he knew we’d run out of things to shoot without him, so back he bustled. He continued working as if he had only paused for thought, despite his evident frailty; as he got going, he literally seemed to puff up with air, the camera rapidly turning him into his old self. It occurred to me, and continued to, that as long as he kept working and talking he would probably live for ever.

However, while we were out there, Laurence Olivier died. When the news broke, John was being slightly upstaged on the set by Fyodor Chaliapin, the son of the legend, then nearly 90, his voice, shaving off the Great Larynx, singing out in the silent room. In any case, everyone at that moment was trying not to look at John. “AAAAAAGH!” cried Chaliapin, raising his hands before him and clapping them together in dismay. When they separated, a large fly lay horribly crushed in one of his palms. Now, when I think of the passing of Olivier, this crushed fly is what is see; but what I hear is Gielgud’s voice later in the day, talking quietly about his relationship with Olivier, his admiration quite untinged with envy, his slightly battered love for him, stressing always the things Olivier could do that he couldn’t, never the other way around. Generous, humorous, sad and undeceived, the sound was familiar; I was listening to the voice of Hamlet.

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